KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- It was the “quintessential military exercise,” said one of the organizers, but also, the first “Veterans Benefits Symposium” at Cokesbury United Methodist Church on Jan. 23 was a prime example of United Methodist connectionalism.
Five Knoxville churches joined to organize and host a dinner for 113 veterans and family members with the goal of informing and connecting them with benefits they might not know about.
The symposium was the “brainchild” of Jim Spreng, member of First United Methodist Church, said fellow church member Dian Shackelford. Spreng's original idea was to share information with veterans in his own church, through the Knox County Veterans Services office, about the myriad of health, disability, pension, funeral, education and other benefits available to military personnel.
Concerned that many veterans might also be unaware of available benefits, especially amid the complexities, “we made the decision not to keep it to ourselves,” said Shackelford, a retired Army nurse.
Over the last year, representatives from First Knoxville, Cokesbury, Concord, Fountain City, and First Farragut worked to plan the symposium that happened Jan. 23.
The Rev. Troy Forrester, senior pastor at First United Methodist in Knoxville, said he celebrated a lay- and veteran-led leadership team. In addition to Spreng and Shackelford, the team included Anthony Tillman of Cokesbury, Tony Benedetti of Concord, Steve Krupski of First Farragut, and Tom Cloud of Fountain City.
“Each of us came to the table with different gifts and talents and we all said, ‘What do you need?’” Shackelford said. “It was the quintessential military exercise."
Each of the five congregations identified veterans in their churches and invited them to the symposium. The speaker was retired Marine Tom Humphries of Knox County Veterans Services, who shared helpful details of government benefits that include, for example, aid for prisoners of war-radiation exposure or loans to help veterans purchase homes.
“Thank you to each of you for your service. From one veteran to another, thank you. Whether at peace or especially at times of war, everyone in this room has shown their willingness to wear the uniform and carry the flag of freedom to faraway lands,” Benedetti said during the dinner’s opening remarks.
The "cherry on the top," said Shackelford, was the service of local Boy Scout troops 46 and 47, who presented the colors, led the Pledge of Allegiance, directed guests to their seats, and served dinner.
Tillman told The Call he hoped the symposium could help bring awareness of all veterans within Holston Conference congregations.
“On Veterans Day, we often ask the veterans in the congregation to stand, but it’s a little more personal if you know who those people are,” Tillman said. He suggested reaching out to each veteran in the local church, establishing a list, and planning a special event or benefits-sharing symposium like the Jan. 23 dinner at Cokesbury.
Forrester noted that even in a time of division in the nation and church, recognizing and helping veterans is an opportunity for a unifying project.
“If we could only focus on moving forward on what we’re doing for the Kingdom, this should be something we all can get behind: Celebrating and thanking the people who have served our country,” Forrester told The Call. “We might vote different in November, but we can agree that Jesus Christ was crucified and on the mission of serving our neighbors.”
Dinner for the Veterans Benefits Symposium was prepared by Knox Area Rescue Mission’s Abundant Life Catering. The Holston Foundation provided financial support along with each of the five churches.
A recording of the benefits symposium is posted.
For more information, about veteran benefits, visit:
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.
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